This Time, London
Didn't Make the List
JUNE 1, 1993 -- This may sound like an almost perfect getaway: I recently spent three weeks kicked back in a room with a view in the old Southern resort town of Fairhope, Alabama. There was nothing much to do but read, rest and take breakfast in bed.

After a while the food got monotonous, but someone from the staff was forever dropping by to see if I needed anything, or just to fluff my pillow. The bill? A bit more than a thousand a day. Perfect, however, it wasn't.

You see, I was staying not at the Grand Hotel, the 150-year-old patrician resort on Mobile Bay, but a few miles away at the numbingly modern Thomas Hospital.

And all the while I should have been in Ethiopia. I had my tickets, visa and Travel & Leisure assignment. I was about to start packing but finally had concede what my subconscious had known: Something was not right. There were those occasional pains in the abdomen and that unexplained weight gain.

Since I would be venturing deep into the wild and woolly Ethiopian countryside to see the carved stone churches at Lalibela and visit Lake Tana, source of the Blue Nile, a pre-trip physical seemed prudent. It's the kind of travel advice I've always brandished freely, yet seldom followed.

Me? I never get sick. But I did.

After two days of tests, a grim-faced internist gave me the dreaded news: It was the Big C--cancer, perilously advanced and requiring immediate surgery. We sat in silence for a moment, the doctor no doubt expecting the standard line: How long do I have?

Instead, I heard myself saying, "Okay, Ethiopia is off. But several of us have this farmhouse in Tuscany rented for June. Do you think you can have me out of here by then?"

He looked a little startled, but promised to try.

Nothing concentrates the mind quite like a close encounter with mortality. During my ordeal I have learned a lot about the importance of friends and family, about the joy of waking up in my own home and fiddling with my coffeemaker. Such simple things I won't take for granted again. And if ever I doubted it (which of course I didn't), medical incarceration has reconfirmed the pivotal role of travel in my scheme of things.

For me the counterpoint to mortality is mobility. Now I often reflect on the final sentences in Eric J. Leed's treatise The Mind of the Traveler: "Those do not die who connect their endings to their beginnings. Therefore wander."

Through all the groggy, often painful and scary days, what kept me focused on better times was a 300-year—old stone house at a vineyard deep in Chianti country, where I imagined candlelight dinners on a terrace beneath a vine-swathed trellis and early-morning strolls to buy bread in a nearby hill town. Well-wishers sent me books on surviving cancer, all of which counsel "visualization" (loosely, that's fixing your thoughts frequently on a comforting image) to help the healing process. I was way ahead of them.

The ambush en route to Ethiopia, however, taught me truths about travel that will last well beyond June and Tuscany. I had always resisted answering the question, What's your favorite destination? I would hedge or mumble, "It all depends upon what you like." Far from being coy, I honestly didn't know the answer.

Now I do. I can tell you unequivocally that New York, Rome and Sydney are my favorite cities. They are the places I am simply not prepared never to see again. Now I can tell you my favorite resorts, too: Amandari in the misty highlands of Bali and the sumptuously surreal Hotel Romazzino on Sardinia's Costa Smeralda. If you had asked me before, I'd have shrugged and said I was not an island person, probably pointing out that my last trip to the Caribbean was more than a decade ago. But tethered to a hospital bed I found myself calculating how and when I could get back to the islands of Bali and Sardinia.

It surprised me how little I thought about all the places I've never been but always planned to go to: Thailand, Nepal, Zanzibar. I've dreamed of trekking across the Khyber Pass, of rafting the Colorado, of taking the train from Moscow to Beijing.

I may yet do those things, but when time looked short, a caffé doppio at a table on the Piazza della Rotunda in front of the Pantheon was the travel adventure I truly craved.

Friends with whom I shared these revelations were surprised that Paris didn't make the short list. I can only say, love it as I do, Paris was curiously absent from my dreams. So was London. One friend suggested that my memory of Sardinia must have failed me--was it the drugs?--since the Cala di Volpe is always regarded as the Costa Smeralda's top hotel. I replied that there's no accounting for the myopia of the majority. Someone else reminded me of the two new beachside Aman resorts on Bali, which I should probably check out when I get there. Waste a precious day in Bali anywhere other than in a cliff-hanging villa at Amandari? Not on my time!

But first trips first: About the time you read this I should be blissfully reposed on the veranda of my Tuscan farmhouse, surveying the vineyards and hill towns from beneath a baseball cap, that badge of the chemotherapy patient.

In the months and years to come, an occasional journey may have to be postponed, a column deadline missed. With cancer, I've learned, there are no sure things. And as for Thailand, Nepal and Zanzibar, my first engagements there may just have to wait for the clean bill of health that I fully expect.

This column originally appeared in Travel & Leisure magazine.